David Britton, 1945–2020

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Mister Rock’n’roll, 1969.

David Britton, author, artist and publisher, died on 29th December. I wrote this for the Savoy Books news announcement:

My closest artistic collaborator from 1989 to 1999, and a close friend for longer than this: capricious, determined, fearless, funny, generous and inspirational. No David Britton, no Lord Horror; no Lord Horror, no Reverbstorm. He changed my life.

He’d been increasingly ill for several years so this came as less of a surprise to those of us close to him than to others. Dave and I used to talk at least once a week, and on the last occasion he’d sounded worse than usual. Those talks were episodes in a conversation about art that ran for over 30 years, beginning in the mid-1980s at the counter of the Savoy bookshop in Peter Street, Manchester, continuing in the Savoy offices with co-publisher and collaborator Michael Butterworth, and resuming on the phone; art in all its forms and in any medium, with no attention paid to categories of “high” and “low”.

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Reverbstorm, the Lord Horror comic series that we created throughout the 1990s, was the product of those conversations, and was also produced mostly through conversation, working by instinct without a script. The series, which was compiled into definitive book form in 2012, is testament to a pooled breadth of interest, encompassing/quoting/appropriating/reworking Pointillist, Cubist and Expressionist painting, Modernist poetry, pop songs, Sondheim musicals, Finnegans Wake, Tom Phillips’ Humument, Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan comics, Joel-Peter Witkin’s photographs, voodoo chants, Piranesi, King Kong, Bauhaus graphic design, Hugh Ferriss architecture, and illustration of all kinds, from fairy tales to cosmic horror via Aubrey Beardsley and Harry Clarke; there’s even ballet in the mix if you look closely. Dave always liked the idea of Lord Horror leaping and pirouetting like a dancer. More than anything, Reverbstorm is rock’n’roll, and this is partly what the title refers to: a thundering rhythm.

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Britton art from Weird Fantasy #2, 1971. This is the drawing that caught the attention of William Burroughs when Britton and Butterworth visited Burroughs in New York City in 1979.

The term “rock’n’roll” always requires qualification when considering the Britton oeuvre, he used it with regularity while remaining bitterly aware that the original charge of the words had been degraded by over-use, reduced to a caricature by too many mediocre music acts and lazy journalists. I chided him a couple of times that his use of the term was functionally meaningless, a synonym for “my favourite things”. But the application was always a serious one, a label for any work that he found sufficiently thrilling, wild, original, excessive, anarchic, flamboyant, boundary-breaking or confrontational. Little Richard, Larry Williams, Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley were Dave’s kind of rock’n’roll, as were Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, PJ Proby, Iggy Pop, the Sex Pistols, The Cramps, The White Stripes and the Wu-Tang Clan. No surprise there, but Burne Hogarth was also rock’n’roll, although Hogarth would no doubt have disputed this. Another favourite artist, James Cawthorn, was given the label because Dave had discovered Cawthorn’s work when his teenage rock’n’roll obsession was at its height; two forms of art were permanently bound together, with sword & sorcery recast as the literary equivalent of a delinquent musical idiom. Dave’s other artist collaborator, Kris Guidio, was rock’n’roll for having served time as a peerless portraitist of The Cramps. LaVern Baker was rock’n’roll, as was CL Moore. Aubrey Beardsley was rock’n’roll and Harry Clarke was rock’n’roll; William Burroughs and William Hope Hodgson were rock’n’roll, so were Michael Moorcock and Harlan Ellison. Francis Bacon and Paula Rego were rock’n’roll; Alan Clarke was rock’n’roll and so was David Lynch. The quest for more of this rare commodity was relentless and unceasing. Many of our conversations were little more than enthusiastic discussions of shared favourites, or recommendations to watch/read/listen to something new.

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The first Savoy publication from 1976—Cawthorn adapting Moorcock’s apocalyptic Elric novel—was a declaration of intent: maximum rock’n’roll.

The photo at the head of this post is one that Dave had reused in recent years, one of the few portraits he seemed to like. It first appeared inside his debut publication, Weird Fantasy #1, a genre fanzine that was also enough of an underground publication to receive a passing mention in Oz magazine. The picture is emblematic of the Britton character, dressed in a manner at odds with the north Manchester surroundings he grew up in, and where he was still stuck at the time, a world of back-to-back housing and squalid ginnels. Rock’n’roll in all its forms was the great escape from a world of severely limited horizons and circumscribed lives, where all you could look forward to after a few years of poor education was a job in the local mill or factory. People who dismiss the gaudier forms of entertainment as “escapist” are usually middle class and blessed with comforts and opportunities that reinforce their condescensions; people who never had to consider a life so lacking in promise that a song heard on the radio, a vinyl record, a comic book, a paperback found on a market stall, might be the key to a wider world, an affirmation that there was more than the brick walls of your immediate environment, and there could be even more than this. “Escapist” suggests a hiding away but it also means breaking free. In later years Dave maintained a sporadic correspondence with Alan Moore; they never met but were mutually supportive, thanks in part to a shared background as bright boys from working-class backwaters with no encouragement to try and transform their lives through their escapist enthusiasms. Alan maintained an affection for his background, but Dave seldom spoke of his without a shudder, as though he’d evaded a fate worse than death. One thing he retained from north Manchester was an ebulliently vulgar sense of humour. He agreed with Picasso that good taste is the enemy of creativity.

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David Britton’s first novel wasn’t one he considered his best but it remains the most notorious thanks to the conscientious literary assessments of the Greater Manchester police.

I’ll miss Dave’s infectious humour, just as I’ll miss the conversations that so often provoked it, the quest for better art, some new kind of kick, more rock’n’roll. I’ll miss being able to show him something I know he’ll enjoy. He always liked quotations so I’ll end this with a lengthy one from Walter Pater, the aesthetic theorist whose ideas energised the Decadents and the founders of The Savoy, the magazine from which Savoy Books took its name. It summarises Dave’s attitude to life even if he’d never discuss things in such a grandiloquent manner:

…we are all condamnes, as Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve—les hommes sont tous condamnes a mort avec des sursis indefinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among “the children of this world,” in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of this wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art’s sake, has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.

Previously on { feuilleton }
James Cawthorn: The Man and His Art
A Reverbstorm jukebox
Reverbstorm: an introduction and preview

Taking Tiger Mountain

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Another week, another obscure black-and-white science fiction film. I hadn’t heard of this one at all until it was announced in 2012 that co-director Tom Huckabee would be attending a rare screening in New York. The film is an oddity with a complicated history that I’m too lazy to try and condense so here’s the borrowed detail:

IMDB: In a dystopian future, Europe is unified under a totalitarian patriarchy, where each town is assigned a single economic purpose. In Brendovery, Wales the occupation is prostitution. Arriving by train from London is Billy Hampton, a young American expatriate and draft evader (Bill Paxton in his first lead role), ostensibly there to enjoy a sex-filled holiday. Unknown to him he is a time bomb assassin, programmed by a feminist terrorist cell to assassinate the local minister of prostitution.

Wikipedia: Taking Tiger Mountain is a 1983 American science fiction film directed by Tom Huckabee and Kent Smith, and starring Bill Paxton in one of his earliest on-screen acting roles. Originally conceived as an experimental art film inspired by a novel by Albert Camus’s 1942 novel The Stranger and a poem by Smith, the film was initially directed by Smith and shot in Wales. Aside from Paxton, the film’s cast is made up of townspeople from the areas in which shooting took place. It was filmed without sound, with the intention of adding dialogue in post-production. During post-production, Huckabee took over as the film’s director, abandoning Smith’s original concept and instead loosely basing the film on the 1979 novella Blade Runner (a movie) by William S. Burroughs. The film premiered on March 24, 1983. Over three decades later, Huckabee re-edited the film and released it as an alternate cut titled Taking Tiger Mountain Revisited.

Tom Huckabee: The story went through four distinct periods of creation:
1. Kent Smith’s original script, entitled Taking Tiger Mountain, written in 1974, based loosely on the John Paul Getty III’s kidnapping of 1973 and Albert Camus’ The Stranger. It was set in the casbah of Tangier, Morocco.
2. After Bill and Kent got ejected from Morocco before shooting even a foot of film, they drove to Wales, adapting the script significantly to the new location and the people and opportunities that presented themselves; but they ran out of film and money after shooting about half of their script.
3. After I acquired the footage in 1979, I knew I couldn’t go back to Wales, so after editing their footage to about 55 minutes, I wrote a new story with a lot of help from collaborators, like Paul Cullum, Lorrie O’Shatz, and Ray Layton. I incorporated the Burroughs material and dropped the 55 minutes from Kent and Bill’s script into it. We wrote the ten-minute introductory section with the women and shot it on a sound stage in Austin, incorporating footage from another unfinished film by Kent and Bill called D’Artangan. I also built ten minutes of scenes from outtakes. In 1980, Paxton came to Austin for a few days to “loop” all of his dialogue, as no sound had been recorded in Wales. He improvised a lot of his voice-over narration, while under hypnosis. This film, called Taking Tiger Mountain, was released on 35mm in 1983 and toured the Landmark Theater chain of art cinemas.
4.  In 2016 I got a small advance from Etiquette Pictures for digital distribution and decided to do a major upgrade. I cut out ten minutes and added five, including the new ending, which comes after the end credits, significantly changing the message of the film. I reworked the narrative, making it easier to follow.

In addition to the complications of the production it’s necessary to note that the title has nothing to do with either Brian Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), or the Chinese opera the Eno album is named after, although we do get to hear about a tiger mountain. This reflects the equally tangled history of the “Blade Runner” title, which Taking Tiger Mountain does have some connection with via William Burroughs’ Blade Runner: A Movie. This was Burroughs’ cinematic reworking of a science fiction novel by Alan E. Nourse, The Bladerunner (1974), a piece of futurism about the very American dystopia of a nightmare healthcare system. Blade Runner: A Movie followed Burroughs’ earlier screenplay/novella, The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, although the Nourse adaptation was a much more ambitious scenario with little chance of ever being filmed. No studio in the 1970s (or today, for that matter…) would have put up the money for something that’s like a wilder version of Escape from New York with added gay sex and time travel, however attractive this may sound. As is well known by now, the treatment’s title was later purloined by another film that has little else in common with anything discussed here.

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All of which means that Taking Tiger Mountain is exactly the kind of thing guaranteed to stoke my curiosity: a Burroughs-derived science-fiction film made on the cheap by Americans in south Wales, of all places. Why Wales? Because Bill Paxton had been there as a foreign exchange student. I’m not sure I would have been as interested without the disjunctive frisson of gloomy, rain-swept Wales in the mid-1970s colliding with William Burroughs. That said, the blu-ray release from Vinegar Syndrome has two things immediately in its favour: for a micro-budget production the film has excellent photography (the black-and-white stock was provided by leftovers from Bob Fosse’s Lenny); and there’s a surprising amount of unsimulated sex, something that isn’t such a big deal today but certainly was in 1974. The youthful Bill Paxton is gorgeous and exceptionally photogenic, so the film is a pleasure to watch even when little of substance is happening.

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Continue reading “Taking Tiger Mountain”

Motorway cities

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The process of updating the main website meant I had to check (and double-check, etc) every single page, so I’ve been looking at more of my old artwork than usual. This 7-inch single sleeve from 1983 made me belatedly realise that the wheel-less levitating car I put on the back of Joe Banks’ Hawkwind book has an ancestor here and on the cover of the third Friends and Relations compilation that Flicknife released in 1985. The continuity was accidental but Motorway City (the song) dates from the end of the period discussed in Joe’s book so it’s good to think that a vague reference to the Levitation era can be found on the cover art.

This odd drawing dates from 1980, a year when my life was in such turmoil I’m amazed I had time to do any drawing at all. I was 18 and had already burned my way through three dead-end jobs after leaving school the year before, by which point I was agreeing with Dave Brock’s Brainstorm ad lib on the Live Seventy Nine album, “I don’t want to be employed!” This attitude led to increasing rows with my mother which in turn led me to spend more time than usual in Blackpool library. Part of the inking on the drawing was done during one of these stress-free afternoons in the library reading room. I’d guess this was shortly after I’d met the group for the first time at their Preston concert on 20th October since most of the drawings I took with me were generic space art rather than pieces derived from Hawkwind songs. They’d played Motorway City that evening (the second song according to Setlist.fm) so I’m sure I would have made a point of showing it off. I say this is an odd drawing because I’ve no idea why I made it look so obviously like a single sleeve, but it’s possible that a single release of the song from the new Levitation album had been rumoured. Whatever the explanation, this was one of the first drawings I made using my new Rotring Rapidograph pen which I used throughout the ensuing decade; one advantage of the dead-end jobs was they at least gave you enough money to afford expensive German technology. A year later, looking through a friend’s copy of Centigrade 232 by Robert Calvert, I was amused to discover a poetic complaint about the tendency of fine-nibbed Rapidograph pens to become blocked with ink. You have to treat them with care and respect, Bob.

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The car on the Friends & Relations cover wasn’t intended to be a reference to the earlier vehicle but removing the wheels was the easiest way of indicating a futuristic scene without any other overt signifiers. A shame, then, that the TV in the foreground is a cathode-ray tube in a wooden case. (And while I’m being critical, the careless use of perspective makes the car much too long.) Both these vehicles look rather graceless, as did cars in general in the late 1970s/early 1980s when there was a trend for boxy design. I’m usually indifferent to the automotive world but I could at least have borrowed some of the carapace sleekness you see in paintings by Syd Mead or Peter Jones.

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The Friends & Relations album was reissued on CD in 2014 in one of the Atomhenge CD box sets: The Flicknife Years, 1981–1988. The set includes two other albums with covers of mine: Zones and Out And Intake. Zones was a compilation of recent live recordings and a few studio outtakes that includes the version of Motorway City released as a single, together with a Michael Moorcock song that’s unique to this album (and sung by the man himself), Running Through The Back Brain.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Reality you can rely on
Hardy art
Silver machines
Notes from the Underground
Hawkwind: Days of the Underground
The artists of Future Life
Science Fiction Monthly
The Chronicle of the Cursed Sleeve
Rock shirts
The Cosmic Grill
Void City
Hawk things
The Sonic Assassins
New things for July
Barney Bubbles: artist and designer

Weekend links 527

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Poster art by Bob Peak.

• Sidney Lumet’s 1977 film of Peter Shaffer’s Equus receives a limited blu-ray release by the BFI in August. Richard Burton’s performance has always received a mixed response (I’ve never been in the anti-Burton camp) but the film is serious and well-made. And, as with The Offence (1973), there’s the thrill of seeing Lumet turn his attention away from his beloved New York City to examine British lives.

• “Astronomer claims to have pinpointed date of Vermeer’s View of Delft.” Yes, but how long did it take Vermeer paint the view? Speaking as someone who used to paint a lot, I’d say two or three days at least. Then there’s that awkward thing known as “artistic licence”…

• “I was taken aback by the antic side of Borges. He was irreverent, funny, insistent on his ways, and brilliantly talkative.” Jay Parini on Jorge Luis Borges, and his experience as the writer’s chauffeur in the Scottish Highlands.

• Strange Islands: Benjamin Welton on a favourite cinematic micro-genre I explored here a few years ago: the mysterious tropical island that’s a home to fearsome beasts and outsized (often deranged) personalities.

Greydogtales on The Sapphire Goddess of Nictzin Dyalhis, the Weird Tales writer with a name like a character from one of his stories.

• “I came for the giant phalluses and stayed for the joy of being a gay person.” Eight artists on the influence of Tom of Finland.

Tamsin Cleary on Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (1977) which she calls “the world’s most demented haunted house film”. It really is.

The Gone Away, a short film by Sean Reynard for the forthcoming album from Belbury Poly.

Moorcography: the beginnings of an online Michael Moorcock bibliography.

• “Our sound engineer got a death threat”: Andrew Male on Olivia, a lesbian record label.

Bajo el Signo de Libra explores the art of Aubrey Beardsley.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Hans-Jürgen Syberberg Day.

The secret drawings of Great Britain’s UFO Desk.

Wyrd Daze Lvl.4 is here.

The Four Horsemen (1971) by Aphrodite’s Child | All The Pretty Little Horses (2004) by Coil | When The Horses Were Shorn Of Their Hooves (2018) by Dylan Carlson

Hardy art

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Hawkwind continue to be the overwhelming topic of the moment while I’m reading Joe Banks’ marvellously detailed account of the group’s first decade. One of the many attractions of Hawkwind for this listener was their intersection with other areas of interest: Moorcock and New Worlds, obviously (two of Robert Calvert’s poems appeared in New Worlds Quarterly), but also SF and fantasy in general. The alien planet on the back cover of the Hall of the Mountain Grill album was immediately recognisable as the work of British space artist David A. Hardy thanks to a feature in Visions of the Future (1976) a collection of artwork reprints from the art and fiction magazine Science Fiction Monthly. Hardy had a long association with astronomer Patrick Moore, illustrating the covers of Moore’s novels and later collaborating on a speculative science book, Challenge of the Stars (1972). A few of the latter paintings were reprinted in Visions of the Future, including one with the title Alien Life Forms that depicted amoeboid creatures on a remote planet. The painting would have become the back cover of the Hawkwind album if Hardy hadn’t insisted on creating a new work in a more suitable ratio.

Hardy’s association with Hawkwind extended to their stage shows, with a series of circular paintings used by “Liquid Len” (Jonathan Smeeton) on a rotating projector that covered the band in moving panoramas of ancient monuments, dinosaurs, alien landscapes and exploding worlds. Two of the paintings appear as the endpapers in Joe’s book; the dinosaurs and the monuments may be seen here. Joe’s account also resolved another nagging micro-mystery by confirming that the stage projections used while the group played the instrumental Wind Of Change were also Hardy paintings, not an animated film as I’d been led to believe by a friend who saw one of the shows where the number was performed. The slides apparently showed an isolated tree around which a city grows then self-destructs, although I’ve yet to see a reproduction of any of the paintings.

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Cover design by Bryan Cholfin.

My own Hawkwind covers make very poor comparisons to Hardy’s meticulous renderings but we do have a further connection via The Very Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a collection of stories from the long-running magazine edited by Gordon Van Gelder. I designed the book’s interiors and Hardy contributed the cover art. Hardy painted many covers for F&SF throughout the 1970s and 80s, this shining rocket being a reworking of a cover he produced for the magazine’s 60th anniversary issue. The archetypal spacecraft of classic science fiction, and almost a definitive example. You might even call it a silver machine…

Previously on { feuilleton }
Silver machines
Notes from the Underground
Hawkwind: Days of the Underground
The artists of Future Life
Science Fiction Monthly
The Chronicle of the Cursed Sleeve
Rock shirts
The Cosmic Grill
Void City
Hawk things
The Sonic Assassins
New things for July
Barney Bubbles: artist and designer